Black Spirituality Religion : Black Atheists Say Non-Belief Mean Cultural Outsider

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Black Atheists Say Non-Belief Means Cultural Outsider
By National Public Radio
May 28, 2010

For centuries, African-American culture has been significantly influenced by the black church and the Christian faith. So being both black and atheist can be a lonely and isolating experience for some. But, the largest-ever gathering of African-American atheists was recently held in Washington, D.C. Participant and journalist Jamila Bey shares her experience, and is joined by Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, which hosted the conference. Bey recently wrote about being an atheist for the online magazine TheRoot.com.

TRANSCRIPT

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, TELL ME MORE's Web guide joins us for our weekly backtalk segment where we get to hear from you.

But, first, for a couple of centuries, African-American culture has been imbued with Christianity. The church figured prominently in both the abolitionist and civil rights movements. And today in many communities, the Christian church continues to be the nucleus of black life.

So, what about the black nonbelievers? It's one isolating experience, according to Jamila Bey. She recently wrote about what it's like as a black atheist for TheRoot.com. But she adds that she found joy in a community of like-minded people, a conference of African-Americans for humanism. Jamila Bey joins me now in our studio in Washington. Also with us is Norm Allen, executive director of African-Americans for Humanism. Welcome to the both of you.

Mr. NORM ALLEN (Executive Director, African-Americans for Humanism): Thank you.

Ms. JAMILA BEY (Writer, TheRoot.com): Thank you for having us.

COX: Jamila, I'm going to begin with you because you wrote something in your blog for The Root that really caught my eye. You compared going to this conference with the movie "The Color Purple," and when Celie and Nettie found each other and it was this really embracing moment. Why was it like that for you?

Ms. BEY: It was rapture, to use a word that I guess, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: ...my Christian brethren would tend to use. The beauty of this conference was these people who look like me, who think as I do, who are intelligent and love science and love reason and love rational thought and feel what I do sometimes in that our culture doesn't respect us because we don't follow the typical belief system.

Going into a place where everybody at least, you know, when you sneeze, just kind of let you be. It was fun. It was great. I imagine it was like what people who look for each other their whole lives - but you know, I don't know if the gentlemen would agree, it was like finding a long-lost brother.

COX: Well, let's bring Norm into the conversation to talk about putting that event together. But before you answer that question, Norm, maybe it will be helpful if we define some terms for the audience. Humanism, atheism, what is each and what is the difference between the two?

Mr. ALLEN: An atheist is simply one who doesn't believe in a god or gods, whereas a humanist is someone who does have an alternative to religion and someone who believes in certain things such as church-state separation, evolution, good science teaching and things of that nature.

COX: Now, with regard to atheism, does it have to do, I'll direct this to you, Jamila, is it particularly sort of anti-Christian or are you suggesting that there is no God, no Muhammad, no prophet, nobody that is to be believed in?

Ms. BEY: For me I feel that the question of God is just sort of irrelevant because I'm not anti anything. If you choose to believe in Jesus, if you choose to believe in Osiris or Vishnu, that's your choice. I don't believe in anything that can't be proven. I don't believe in the mythology of whatever people have come before me. So...

COX: No life after death for you.

Ms. BEY: No, that's not proven. That's not provable. We know that we stop breathing and we decompose. And I know that that's not the nicest, most wonderful way of thinking about things to people who have been taught that their salvation will come after they stop living in this physical life, but sorry, that's just not the case.

COX: So, Norm, why is this such an issue for black people who believe in either humanism or atheism?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, we believe you have to have an alternative. And so often not only do we promote a positive alternative to religion, but we also see that there have been some very negative aspects of religion that have been holding our people back for centuries. You mentioned earlier about the importance of religion in the abolitionist movement and in the civil rights movement, and obviously there have been many benefits to come from religion. READ MORE: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127239913

For those of you are African-American Atheists do you feel like a "Cultural outsider"?
 
Black Atheists Say Non-Belief Means Cultural Outsider
By National Public Radio
May 28, 2010

For centuries, African-American culture has been significantly influenced by the black church and the Christian faith. So being both black and atheist can be a lonely and isolating experience for some. But, the largest-ever gathering of African-American atheists was recently held in Washington, D.C. Participant and journalist Jamila Bey shares her experience, and is joined by Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, which hosted the conference. Bey recently wrote about being an atheist for the online magazine TheRoot.com.

TRANSCRIPT

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, TELL ME MORE's Web guide joins us for our weekly backtalk segment where we get to hear from you.

But, first, for a couple of centuries, African-American culture has been imbued with Christianity. The church figured prominently in both the abolitionist and civil rights movements. And today in many communities, the Christian church continues to be the nucleus of black life.

So, what about the black nonbelievers? It's one isolating experience, according to Jamila Bey. She recently wrote about what it's like as a black atheist for TheRoot.com. But she adds that she found joy in a community of like-minded people, a conference of African-Americans for humanism. Jamila Bey joins me now in our studio in Washington. Also with us is Norm Allen, executive director of African-Americans for Humanism. Welcome to the both of you.

Mr. NORM ALLEN (Executive Director, African-Americans for Humanism): Thank you.

Ms. JAMILA BEY (Writer, TheRoot.com): Thank you for having us.

COX: Jamila, I'm going to begin with you because you wrote something in your blog for The Root that really caught my eye. You compared going to this conference with the movie "The Color Purple," and when Celie and Nettie found each other and it was this really embracing moment. Why was it like that for you?

Ms. BEY: It was rapture, to use a word that I guess, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: ...my Christian brethren would tend to use. The beauty of this conference was these people who look like me, who think as I do, who are intelligent and love science and love reason and love rational thought and feel what I do sometimes in that our culture doesn't respect us because we don't follow the typical belief system.

Going into a place where everybody at least, you know, when you sneeze, just kind of let you be. It was fun. It was great. I imagine it was like what people who look for each other their whole lives - but you know, I don't know if the gentlemen would agree, it was like finding a long-lost brother.

COX: Well, let's bring Norm into the conversation to talk about putting that event together. But before you answer that question, Norm, maybe it will be helpful if we define some terms for the audience. Humanism, atheism, what is each and what is the difference between the two?

Mr. ALLEN: An atheist is simply one who doesn't believe in a god or gods, whereas a humanist is someone who does have an alternative to religion and someone who believes in certain things such as church-state separation, evolution, good science teaching and things of that nature.

COX: Now, with regard to atheism, does it have to do, I'll direct this to you, Jamila, is it particularly sort of anti-Christian or are you suggesting that there is no God, no Muhammad, no prophet, nobody that is to be believed in?

Ms. BEY: For me I feel that the question of God is just sort of irrelevant because I'm not anti anything. If you choose to believe in Jesus, if you choose to believe in Osiris or Vishnu, that's your choice. I don't believe in anything that can't be proven. I don't believe in the mythology of whatever people have come before me. So...

COX: No life after death for you.

Ms. BEY: No, that's not proven. That's not provable. We know that we stop breathing and we decompose. And I know that that's not the nicest, most wonderful way of thinking about things to people who have been taught that their salvation will come after they stop living in this physical life, but sorry, that's just not the case.

COX: So, Norm, why is this such an issue for black people who believe in either humanism or atheism?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, we believe you have to have an alternative. And so often not only do we promote a positive alternative to religion, but we also see that there have been some very negative aspects of religion that have been holding our people back for centuries. You mentioned earlier about the importance of religion in the abolitionist movement and in the civil rights movement, and obviously there have been many benefits to come from religion. READ MORE: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127239913

For those of you are African-American Atheists do you feel like a "Cultural outsider"?
In the black community, if you don't embrace a western religion, you are a "cultural outsider."
 
I left the Church almost five years ago. Although I feel no internal impetus to turn to outright atheism socially it's the same difference.

Although everyone in town loves me and thinks I am such an inspiration there is no one here that I'd call a friend, I don't socialize because you can't talk to anyone for more than five minutes before they want to know what Church you go to. To stay out of trouble I avoid the question with all the powers of evasion I can muster. Man, they ran one guy out of town when they found out he was a Muslim.

It is a sad testimony to our brainwashing in European culture that we see atheism as the only alternative to Christianity. Don't go to Church? You must be an atheist. They reached this verdict before I've decided on putting a label on what I believe now that I don't believe the Bible.

What's funny is the people at the church I used to go to seem to love me more now that I stopped going than they did when I was a member. I know the pastor prolly told them they can love me back into the Church. But my decision to leave had nothing to do with them. If you're not involved with a Church there's really not to much to do in this town but I know if I start socializing with them I will resent being the only person in the group who is not allowed to talk about what I believe and feel. I will also resent having to listen to all them lies while I bite my tongue.
 

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